2018 has begun on an ominous note for Maharashtra. The violent clashes that broke out in villages around Bhima Koregaon near Pune, where Dalits had assembled in large numbers to commemorate the second centenary of the battle between the forces of Peshwa Bajirao II and the British East India Company, has the potential to widen social fissures in the state. The year gone by had witnessed huge congregations of Marathas all over Maharashtra, and it could be the turn of Dalits to set the political agenda this year. It is important, therefore, to understand the genesis and historical context of what could emerge as a crisis with wide ramifications.
The historic Battle of Bhima Koregaon, fought on January 1, 1818, witnessed a large force of the Peshwa being defeated by a relatively small British contingent. Legend has it that the British could overcome the challenge posed by the Peshwa because of the extraordinary valour and courage displayed by the soldiers of the then “untouchable” Mahar caste in their ranks. Many believe that some 200 Mahar soldiers lost their lives in the course of the victorious charge which, in later years, went on to become a powerful symbol of Mahar pride. The victory pillar erected by the British at the site of the battle is, in the Dalit narrative, a monument to community assertion and self-respect today.
Those events of 200 years ago have assumed renewed political significance with the advent of the BJP, and its choice of Devendra Fadnavis, a Brahmin, as the Chief Minister of Maharashtra. The Peshwas, against whom the Dalits fought in Bhima Koregaon, were Brahmins — and the upholders of a regressive social order in which the so-called untouchable castes bore the brunt of upper-caste oppression. In his speech to the Elgaar Parishad in Pune on Saturday, Jignesh Mevani, the Gujarat Dalit MLA who burst into national prominence during the protests against the flogging of Dalits at Una in July 2016, repeatedly referred to the BJP-RSS as the “new Peshwas”.
Maharashtra has been a fertile ground for the development of political thought of all hues. It has produced both Nathuram Godse, the man who killed Gandhi, and Acharya Vinoba Bhave, one of Gandhi’s greatest followers, as well as Gopal Krishna Gokhale, the Mahatma’s guru. Godse, Vinoba, Gokhale, were all Brahmins. This is the land that produced Dr B R Ambedkar, one of the most stringent modern critics of Hinduism, as well as V D Savarkar, the man who coined the term ‘Hindutva’ and wanted India to be a Hindu Rashtra. To rule Maharashtra successfully is needed the ability to balance pressures from multiple, and frequently competing, social groups.
The ongoing protests and violence, the only casualty in which, incidentally, has been a Maratha youth, should be seen in the light of last year’s Maratha morchas. One of the key reasons behind the Maratha anger was the alleged “misuse” of The Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, which has been contentious in the state for some time now. In rural Maharashtra, the stringent Atrocities Act — complaints under which are non-bailable and the onus is on the accused to prove his innocence — has triggered powerful tensions between Dalits and socially forward communities, mainly the Marathas.
A major demand at the huge Maratha gatherings across the state last year was the scrapping of the Atrocities Act. The rallies showcased the power of the politically dominant community, who are over 32% of the state’s population, but who have of late found themselves being nudged aside. The BJP has set its sights on the Brahmins and other upper castes, and on the OBCs. Over the last three decades, it has worked to build a base among OBCs, and its efforts have been reflected in the rise of leaders such as Kalyan Singh, Uma Bharti, the late Gopinath Munde, and even Prime Minister Narendra Modi. This has antagonised the Marathas, who enjoyed uninterrupted power and influence for well over five decades. With agricultural incomes shrinking, the loss of political influence to OBCs and Dalits has provoked extra anger in the Marathas. The outcome of the Gujarat Assembly elections, where the Patidar community — who are in a roughly similar situation — tormented the BJP, has significantly emboldened the Marathas in Maharashtra.
Like the Patidars in Gujarat, the Marathas, too, have been demanding reservations in government jobs. This has put the Fadnavis government in a fix — if it accepts the Maratha demand, it risks alienating the BJP’s OBC base; if it rejects it, there is a danger of the Marathas going against the party in the Assembly elections due in 2019.
For Dalits, it is important to send out the message that they matter politically, before the BJP takes a decision on Maratha reservations. Until the Nineties, Dalits were a force to reckon with in Maharashtra. But since the time of the Namantar Andolan to name Aurangabad’s Marathwada University after Babasaheb Ambedkar, the flare-up over his book, Riddles in Hinduism, and the decline of the once-firebrand Dalit Panthers organisation, the Dalit movement in the state has steadily waned.
First, the Congress, led by Sharad Pawar (whose government renamed Marathwada University as Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar Marathwada University in January 1994), coopted several Dalit leaders. Years later, the BJP continued with the strategy of embracing leaders of Maharashtra’s already fractured Dalit movement — the ministerial berth for Ramdas Athawale, head of the largest faction of the Republican Party of India (RPI), in the Modi government, is a good example. The fact that the RPI, founded by Babasaheb months before his death in 1956, has over a dozen factions today, tells a story — it is also the reason why Maharashtra’s Dalits have failed to become a political force like they are in Uttar Pradesh. The current agitation is aimed at changing this situation.
The agitation also underscores latent subnationalistic impulses currently active in Indian society. Despite a strong majority at the Centre and state governments in most of India, the BJP is not acceptable to large sections. As the ruling party employs its brand of majoritarian politics, many outside the power structure are bound to find reasons to unite to challenge the establishment. In a way, this is a struggle between two nationalisms: religion-based versus caste-based. There is a possibility that the contradictions between them will only spread and increase.